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Issue #1661      October 22, 2014

Government rage as ANU bans polluters

On October 3 the council of the Australian National University (ANU) voted to divest itself of $16 million worth of investments in seven companies involved in coal and gas extraction, because of the association of those industries with climate change.

Stanford University in the United States recently made a similar decision, but it was the first time any Australian University had done so. The indignant response of the companies involved was predictable, but the Abbott government’s reaction took many people by surprise.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott accused the council of “posturing” and federal infrastructure minister Jamie Briggs declared the decision was a disgrace and a threat to jobs.

Last week when opening central Queensland’s new Caval Ridge coal mine, which could produce 7.5 million tons of coal per annum, Abbott described the event was “a great day for humanity”.

He added: “Let’s have no demonisation of coal. Coal is good for humanity, coal is good for prosperity, coal is an essential part of our economic future, here and right around the world.

“We ought to be the world’s affordable energy capital and … in the months and years and decades to come Australia’s energy companies will be a very good investment for people who are sensible enough to see where their opportunities are.”

That statement summed up the government’s position in a nutshell. For them the principal issue involved is not climate change (which didn’t get a mention in Abbott’s statement), nor the right of public institutions like universities to make independent financial decisions, but rather the future well-being of fossil fuel corporations.

But the future of those corporations is now increasingly uncertain. Because of the development of renewable energy generation and increasing public consciousness about climate change, corporations involved in coal or gas production will become less attractive areas of investment, and many investors will end up with virtually worthless “stranded assets”.

According to Climate Institute deputy CEO Erwin Jackson, US investment group the Rockefeller Brothers Fund is now refusing to invest in fossil fuels, and the Australian superannuation funds HESTA and LG Super are cutting their investments in coal.

Deutsche Bank, Barclays and HSBC have also refused to provide loans for the massive Abbot Point coal port near the Great Barrier Reef unless the UN approves it, and during a Montreal meeting investors holding almost $500 billion in assets pledged to “carbon footprint” their portfolios, the first step towards ending their involvement in carbon-emitting industries.

Jackson commented: “… investors counting on a ‘business as usual’ strategy which fails to seriously consider climate and carbon risks will find their funds are not only at risk of damage to their image, but to their returns.”

Two weeks ago a key adviser to German Chancellor Angela Merkel described the Abbott government’s coal policy as an economic “suicide strategy”. The government’s unquestioning support for the coal and gas industries and their suppression of alternatives has serious national implications because Australia’s national development is being centred around a dying industry.

Unleashing the whirlwind

Abbott did not take the sensible option of letting the ANU controversy die down. Last Thursday he again attacked the ANU council, suggesting it should reverse its decision and declaring: “Of course they should be free to do what they want, but when they make stupid decisions we should be free to criticise them”.

Swimming against the tide of history, he added threateningly: “The government … is determined to create the conditions for continued expansion of the coal industry’.

Abbott attacked the ANU board not only because his government unfailingly serves the interests of the fossil fuel corporations, but also because universities enjoy public respect, and the ANU decision will influence other investors to do the same.

The attack provoked an extraordinary public response of support for the university. Last week ANU vice-chancellor Ian Young remarked: “My email account has melted down with emails of support, congratulating the university for its action, and the university’s Facebook page is awash with positive comments.”

Former Liberal leader John Hewson, now an ANU professor, published an open letter of support for the university council, which was endorsed by hundreds of organisations and concerned individuals, including former Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser.

Stranded policies

Since the beginning of the coal industry miners have suffered from terrible lung diseases, but the mine owners and the governments who supported them fought against the miners’ campaigns for better conditions and medical assistance.

And when the phase-out of coal production begins, as it inevitably must, the Abbott government will take no responsibility for equipping the miners with new work skills and helping them find new employment.

There are historical precedents for the government’s current policy over fossil fuels. For example, the first scientific paper associating asbestos with lung disease is said to have been published in 1909, but the phase-out of asbestos did not start until the 1970s, and even then limited amounts of it continued to be used in building products, with government approval.

Asbestos was not banned altogether until 2003, even though thousands of people had by then suffered agonising deaths as a result of contamination.

The Australian people now generally accept that banning asbestos was essential for public health. However, Canada is still producing and selling it to India, and the ultra-conservative Hooper government in Canada has congratulated the Abbott government for its fossil fuel policies.

Petroleum is another clearly identified carcinogen, as well as a major contributor to Australia’s carbon emissions. However, rather than assisting in the transition to electric vehicles, the government is impeding the process, just as it has impeded the phasing out of coal and gas as energy sources.

Meanwhile Christiana Figueres, chief UN climate official, has warned that most of the world’s coal must stay in the ground in order to avoid catastrophic climate change. The Australian people must replace the odious Abbott regime as rapidly as possible or suffer terrible long term consequences.

Next article – Action urged on NT youth policy

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